The respectable subject of these memoirs, William Hayley, who may justly be considered as a poet, a critic, and a biographer, was born at Chichester; in the month of October, 1745. Of his parents we learn, that these were Thomas, the only son of Thomas Hayley, dean of Chichester, and Mary, daughter of Colonel Yates, who represented that city in parliament. Before he attained his third year, he was deprived of the fostering hand of his father, by death; in consequence of which, his education devolved entirely on his remaining parent, who, without any reference to the eulogies on her personal or mental accomplishments, paid her by her son, was certainly well calculated for the arduous duty. Of his attachment to his mother, and grateful acknowledgment of her care to him in an illness which threatened to cut the tender thread of life asunder, we have some beautiful verses as proofs.
His constitution was soon again exposed to danger; for, at Kingston school, which he frequented at an early period, he became affected with a fever which had nearly proved fatal to his existence; but once more was the Muse's favourite son preserved for future fame. He was now intrusted to a domestic tutor, who superintended his education, previous to his resorting to Eton College. After the customary stay at that school, he was inscribed at Trinity Hall, in Cambridge. Before, however, he took up his residence there, he paid his first poetical tribute at the altar, in a poem, on the birth-day of the present Prince of Wales, which first appeared in public in the Cambridge Collection.
His academical course having terminated, he went to Scotland, where he spent several months with different acquaintances. No particular occurrence seems to have taken place with him, until the year 1769, when he entered into the matrimonial state with Elizabeth, daughter of the Rev. Thomas Ball, dean of Chichester, who died but a few years since. After remaining a considerable time in London, he returned to his native county, in 1774, and fixed upon Eartham for his residence, where he still continues.
Of his writings, we observe, that these are not only poetical, but also biographical; he may likewise be viewed as a critic, in his observations oil literary characters. With respect to him, as to men and manners, he is not less distinguished for his modesty of character and sportive imagination, than he is for his heart, animated by the mildest affections.
In the year 1778 he published his Epistles to Mr. Romney; Epistles to Gibbon in 1780; the Triumphs of Temper in 1781; Essays a on Epic Poetry in 1782. These publications were followed, in the year 1784, by a collection of plays, consisting of three comedies and two tragedies; in which he proved the singular happiness of his genius, in composing the dialogue in rhyme equally natural and fluent as in prose itself. To point out one of these pieces, as entitled to an eminent degree of merit, would be an act of injustice to the remainder, each having an equally just claim to applause.
In his Memoirs of Cowper, he assures us that he is not a bard:
Primum me ego illorum dederim quibus esse poetas,
Here he bears a faint resemblance to the coquette, who denies that she is handsome, while she is perfectly aware, that her countenance will affirm the fact. Mr. Hayley has struck himself out of the list of the poets, and, in a late publication, sworn in the Horatian form; but, when he asserts, that the death of Cowper inspired the friend of genius and virtue with universal concern, and, that some authentic and copious memorial was required to be produced, to alleviate the regret of the nation, it may truly be said, that thus is the report of a poet, artfully exalting his own profession. Though it may be hinted, that Mr. Hayley, as a biographer, in attempting to do justice to departed genius and worth, has sometimes exceeded the bounds of moderation, and employed the highest poetical colouring, in delineating the character and genius of this gifted poet; yet, we must feel exceedingly obliged to him, for collecting every record of this amiable man and genuine poet; and presenting us with a series of letters, in which his benevolent heart and sublime mind are so amply displayed. He has transmitted himself to posterity as a friend of this ingenious and amiable man; such an attachment is a proof both of virtue and talent. Were we not apprehensive of offending his modesty, we would indeed assert, that he is endowed with all the qualities of a poet.
There is a natural curiosity, which always seeks to penetrate into the primary of celebrated men. But, in the instance of Cowper, it had been frustrated, till the appearance of Mr. Hayley's publication. Though his writings had long been popular, the author was scarcely known to the public; and, having lived in a state of entire seclusion from the world, there were no anecdotes of his conversation, his habits, or opinions, in circulation among his admirers.
Mr. Hayley's publication has supplied this deficiency, and his Memoirs give us an interesting picture of the feminine delicacy and purity of Cowper's mind. He received, at Eartham, a visit from that friend, to whom he was so endeared by the similarity of their taste and pursuits. His biography is well written, attentively compiled, and calculated to excite the best feelings of the human heart: it has every poetical grace, excepting measure and fiction.
Among his other publications, which also reflect honour on his genius and activity, and which he accomplished, notwithstanding the repeated attacks of disease, are an Elegy on Sir William Jones, and the biography of the immortal bard, Milton; in which he has repelled the shafts of malignity, presented by another biographer. On the whole, if we consider who the men were who became the subjects of his attention, his writings acquire an additional merit in the eyes of men of learning.
With respect to some other performances, which have been attributed to Mr. Hayley, though by him they never were avowed, we notice the novel of the Young Widows — the Essay on Old Maids — and the Elegy on the Greek Model.
We understand that there are many interesting particulars relative to this gentleman contained in Hay's History of Chichester; but we have been assured, that, from an unconquerable, and we think injudicious, modesty, he has always refused to communicate, for publication, any circumstances relative to himself; or even to permit his most intimate friends to do him, in that way, the justice to which he is entitled. The deficiency of the present memoir must, therefore, be attributed to the want of sufficient materials.